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Domestic abusers and failed asylum seekers: Finland mulls expanded use of ankle tags

NGOs saw electronic monitoring as a means to curb violence against women in Finland, but now government is considering ankle bracelets for rejected asylum seekers.

Valvontarangaistusta kärsivää valvotaan sähköisellä jalkapannalla.
Finland introduced ankle tags in 2011. Image: Isto Janhunen / Yle

A.H. (name withheld to protect identity) is a 27-year-old Iraqi who came to Finland in 2015 after his father and siblings were killed in violence in his home territory. He was granted a residence permit in 2017. If his application for asylum had been rejected, he would have been one of many potentially affected by a contentious proposal to track failed asylum seekers by fitting them with ankle monitors as an alternative to detention.

"It seems foolish and incredible because you should never treat an asylum seeker as a criminal or a terrorist! They are human and have the right to live in peace without an ankle monitor," A.H. commented, adding that he felt very strongly about the proposal.

The apparent crackdown coincides with heavy media coverage of child sexual abuse offences committed by quota refugees, asylum seekers and others who had already received Finnish citizenship. The previous government also sought to prod unsuccessful asylum seekers who became undocumented migrants to leave the country, in part by making life uncomfortable by denying them municipal and health services.

Critics of the previous administration’s policies have pointed out that other legal reforms introduced in 2016 to rule out granting asylum on humanitarian grounds have in turn increased the number of undocumented migrants in Finland. In 2018, Turku University researchers estimated that the number of undocumented migrants -- including the so-called "newly paperless" or rejected asylum seekers -- was between 3,000 and 4,000.

Coalition clash over government agenda

Asylum seekers are not the only ones rattled by the proposal for electronic monitoring. Government partners also seem to be split by the planned policy. Interior Minister Maria Ohisalo has previously said that the new administration led by centre-left PM Antti Rinne has not made any decisions about the use of ankle monitors for rejected asylum seekers.

But Ohisalo’s Centre Party government partner Antti Kurvinen recently parted ways with her on the issue of Finland’s refugee policy. In a Facebook post (in Finnish) put up after Ohisalo’s comments, he specifically stressed that the use of ankle monitors on failed asylum seekers is a part of the current government programme and that Ohisalo would have to implement it.

However minister Ohisalo told Yle News via email that the government programme makes no specific mention of the use of ankle monitors, although it does mention "technical monitoring of persons whose [asylum] applications have been refused".

"As I have previously stated, technical monitoring can take a variety of forms and the Ministry of the Interior will examine these different options. Also, it is important to emphasise at this point that nothing related to technical monitoring will be implemented before we have looked carefully into the matter," Ohisalo stated.

Asked about the possible human rights implications of fitting rejected asylum seekers with monitoring devices, the minister said that the government "is strongly committed to human rights and [a] fair process for asylum seekers".

"[The] human rights perspective will be carefully considered as part of the preparation. As stated, we will investigate the possibility to use technical monitoring in some cases provided that it constitutes a less restrictive precautionary and more appropriate measure, from the societal point of view," she added.

According to Finland’s Criminal Sanctions Agency, RISE, the so-called "monitoring sanction" was introduced in November 2011 and has since been applied to offenders who are allowed to live at home but who are monitored by electronic equipment and other means.

On the spectrum of criminal sanctions, the agency ranks electronic monitoring somewhere between community service and a suspended or non-custodial prison sentence and says it can be applied for a maximum of six months. Conscientious objectors opposing military conscription are among the individuals required to wear an ankle monitor as a form of legal sanction.

Ankle monitors mulled to enforce restraining orders

Since Finland introduced electronic tags eight years ago, they have been applied to repeat offenders in drunk driving cases, for example. Conscientious objectors who refuse to perform military or civilian service based on their convictions have also been slapped with the sanction.

Under the previous administration, the Justice Ministry had been considering a number of proposals including electronic monitoring and ankle monitors to help protect victims of domestic violence. In particular, authorities were concerned about the safety of domestic violence victims in cases where their attackers repeatedly violate restraining orders.

With many women likely to die every year at the hands of current or former partners, women’s rights groups say that ankle monitors could help prevent loss of life.

"Ankle monitoring could be a useful tool for serious cases of domestic violence and to prevent the most severe incidents. It is a modern means to avoid violation of restraining orders. It’s also an issue of women’s safety and we know that violence against women is a very serious problem in Finland. For example we know that up to 20 women are killed by close relations every year," National Council of Women of Finland Secretary General Terhi Heinilä told Yle News.

According to the council, restraining orders that the courts hand down are inadequate when it comes to protecting victims of domestic violence.

"In 2016, there was a total of 1,070 reports about restraining order violations to police. About 200 people who breach restraining orders are also suspected of stalking," Heinilä said.

"The National Council of Women of Finland promotes electronic monitoring applying both to those who violate (would affect about 170 individuals each year) and repeatedly violate (would affect about 70 individuals each year) restraining orders," she added.

Minna Piispa, a senior advisor with the Justice Ministry, was closely involved in developing and putting out a memo on the use of electronic monitoring and other measures to enhance the effectiveness of restraining orders.

"The ministry created a memo that also included a proposal for electronic monitoring of repeat offenders of restraining order violations. There were also other initiatives proposed to ensure the safety of victims and to help offenders."

Piispa said that the ministry has made no decisions about moving forward with the legal process and that so far there have been no instructions on the issue from the current minister, Anna-Maja Henriksson. She noted that the new government programme also includes a proposal to reform the legislation governing restraining orders.

"There is more pressure to improve the effectiveness of restraining orders. Last October the rapporteur on the implementation of Article 10 of the Istanbul Convention on the Prevention of Violence against Women and Domestic Violence was not very happy with the current restraining order system."

Refugee NGOs: "A complicated question"

NGOs working with asylum seekers have drawn attention to the complex nature of the discussion swirling around the use of technology such as ankle monitors on persons whose asylum applications have been rejected.

"This is a very complicated question and there are many different angles. We are talking about using ankle tracers on persons whose asylum applications have been rejected -- and of course principally they are not criminals -- in the same way they would be used on convicted criminals," Finnish Refugee Agency executive director Annu Lehtinen told Yle News.

Another organisation working with refugees, the Finnish Refugee Advice Centre, welcomed efforts to find alternatives to detention in a facility.

"Trying to find alternatives to detention is a welcome approach, since detention is not a good solution," Pia Lindfors of the Finnish Refugee Advice Centre said in an interview with Yle News.

"The current government’s four-year programme makes no mention of ankle monitoring but it talks about technological surveillance and this includes methods such as voice recognition, GPS tracking and there are totally different approaches," she added.

However the Finnish chapter of human rights organisation Amnesty International said that measures intended as criminal sanctions -- including electronic monitoring -- should not be a default measure and must be tested against the principles of legality, proportionality and necessity before being applied.

"Anything that restricts freedom of movement or privacy must be carefully considered in relation to the aims of the authorities and it must be necessary and proportionate to the objective to be achieved. If it isn’t, it is a human rights violation," Amnesty International Finland legal adviser Kaisa Korhonen told Yle News.

"This is why we generally oppose detention for purposes of immigration control. Seeking asylum is not a crime and being rejected is not a crime," Korhonen noted.

The Rinne administration’s four-year agenda says the government "will ensure a smooth asylum process and implementation of fundamental rights." However it also declared that it will begin the process of amending the Aliens Act to outline provisions for technical monitoring of persons whose asylum applications have been denied. It described the measure as "an alternative to detention and the residence obligation, constituting a less restrictive and more appropriate precautionary measure."

However "less restrictive and more appropriate" may well be entirely in the eye of the beholder.

"Everyone has the right to free movement in Finland and everyone has a right to live their own lives," A.H declared.

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